On Asking The Wrong Questions
I work in genre.
I’m not terribly interested in multi-generational family sagas or angsty on-off romances in Paris and Prague. I quite like existential crises in novels but anything with children leaves me cold (although there are plenty of exceptions). I greatly respect Kate Atkinson but can see her readers nodding their heads in recognition from their Cotswold gardens and I cannot relate to them.
It doesn’t mean these other novels are not good, of course, just that they don’t speak to me.
My writing is outside of the mainstream because the majority of readers want fictionalised reflections of their own lives. This does not make me emotionally stunted or intellectually stillborn; they say intellectual development ends with a baby’s cry. The pupil prematurely becomes the teacher. While they’re listening out for the baby alarm I’m off exploring ever more abstruse subjects.
As a child I tackled all the books I was told I needed to read; War and Peace, Anna Karenina, Pepys’s diaries, Vanity Fair, Joseph Andrews, Pride and Prejudice. I didn’t finish the Tolstoy but quite enjoyed the Fielding and loved the Pepys.
I realised that I was not capable of asking the kind of questions asked by others. The concerns of the mainstream were not mine; a flaw and a failing. So I headed for disreputable fare in the genre stacks.
My first question about Sherlock Holmes was not whether he’d catch Moriarty or why he was so scared of women, but why he felt the need to consistently justify his friendship with dim Dr Watson.
My first question concerning Agatha Christie’s Poirot; Was no-one else available to investigate this? As for Miss Marple, why did no-one ever tell her to stop being a nosy old bag and fuck off?
When I was a kid, there was an advertisement in the back of a superhero comic that offered salvation for American teenagers. It was a zit gun. It looked like a cross between a hypodermic syringe and a propelling pencil, and you placed it over the spot and pulled out a plunger, creating a vacuum. The question on every acne-ridden teen’s lips was; does it work? My question was, how do you empty it?
Always the wrong questions.
Thinking differently isn’t something you cultivate, it’s just something you can’t help doing. When King Kong fell from the Empire State Building, my first thought was, how will the New York sanitation department get rid of the body? Actually, the SF writer Philip José Farmer came up with a solution to that.
I was baffled and depressed by the sheer mean-spiritedness of Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. I preferred Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and Peake’s Gormenghast and even Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, and therefore was seen to be dropping down several pegs in the literary quality stakes.
But it turns out you don’t have to like what others tell you to like. And the more you go your own way, the more unique a voice you become.
When you write in a genre you do not get invited to the same calibre of writers’ events. Within the literary hierarchies are other hierarchies, judgemental, aloof, subtly anti-semitic or homophobic. This used to bother me terribly until the day I decided to trust my own instincts and not play the game at all. A friend of mine interviewed a Very Famous Writer onstage while he adopted a fake persona for an hour, because he had created such a specific image of himself that he was now trapped within that public image. It wasn’t for me, although I’d have liked the Very Famous Writer part.
I only write what I feel the need to write. I don’t schmooze or attend literary gatherings. If you want a successful career as a novelist you may not wish to follow in my footsteps. Although of course that depends on how you judge success.
Some people have naturally left-field minds. Walking past ‘Transformations’, an extraordinary shop that used to be next to Euston Station, an American friend asked me what it was. The exterior once had a terrible painting of a man in a suit and hat entering as male and leaving in a frumpy frock. I explained that businessmen went there to relax in female attire. His first question was, Do they have a back entrance? Now, that’s a left-field mind.
Personally I think that for a writer, asking the wrong questions is the way to go.